Matthew Fort teaches American literature and rhetoric at Central Lakes College in Central Minnesota. As the son of an underground miner, his stories explore the joys, sorrows, and dreams of people who live in small, mining towns, similar to the one he grew up in as a child.
I can make it to four o’clock before I need one. I can make it to four, and then one half of my brain starts rebelling. When this happens, I try to remember the promises I made to myself earlier in the day. At lunchtime, for example, I announced to an empty kitchen, “I don’t need to drink today.” But by four o’clock I can no longer hold this line of defense. My brain begins to split. I feel the right hemisphere outflank its rational brother to the left.
At 4:04, I start to imagine how it will taste. I imagine the sensation as the alcohol rushes over my tongue, past the epiglottis, down my throat until it splashes like a flood into my stomach. Stomach, not belly. I hate the word “belly.” That was the only word I remember telling Kayla that she couldn’t use.
“Daddy,” she said one day, “my belly hurts.”
“Your stomach, Kayla,” I corrected, “Your stomach hurts.”
“My thumbick,” she echoed in her sweet little lisp, the tip of her tongue slithering underneath her smooth gums.
By 4:08, I know the war is about to rage—that’s when the right hemisphere really starts to howl.
Shortly after it happened and I started drinking, I had to put faces on the whole ordeal or I couldn’t make sense of it, so I made up characters for the left and right side of my brain. The right side, she’s a slack-mouthed, toothless old woman. When she wants me to drink, she wanders into the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere, he’s a jowly priest who is constantly reciting mass in a hospital chapel. When Righty crashes through the chapel doors, she’s always wearing bunny slippers and clutching a bingo card in her arthritic hand. She may have the vocabulary of an infant, but she can blister paint with her screams. She eyes the jowly priest, as if she’s never seen him before, while he ignores her and continues reciting the glorious mysteries in perfect Latin. Order, his tone implies, order will be our salvation. Righty stares at him with this idiotic look on her face while saliva pools in the corners of her mouth. Lefty gets ready to hoist the ivory wafer above his head and that’s when she unleashes her fury.
That split second before she screams—that second is the only chance of my possible salvation, the singular moment when I might shatter the drinking glass, when Lefty and me triumph and win this stupid battle for just one day.
It is also my weakest hour. The old hag knows this, and the black hole of her mouth vibrates so fiercely now with horrible sound that her lips turn into one gigantic ripple. She looks like some goddamn black-and-white cartoon character—the cat with piano teeth once he gets socked in the jaw. From somewhere deep inside I feel her scream.
The sound makes me anxious, so I pick up the closest thing I can find: the drinking glass. I wipe it down like I’ve seen bartenders do countless times. I shove a drying towel into it and spin it by holding the towel inside with my left fist and twirling the base of the glass with my right.
Hold the left flank, I tell myself.
“I’m just washing this glass,” I yell, but Righty sends reinforcements. The kitchen fills with invalids like her who scream inaudibly. “This glass is now clean,” I yell back at them. But they march towards me like Sherman’s men. They’re ready to burn a swath as wide as Georgia through me if I don’t do what they want.
I press the spigot on the box and purple wine bursts into the clean glass. I hold the glass so far beneath the box that it sounds like piss hitting the center of the toilet. This is the last noise I hear in the kitchen.
At 4:15, I unlock the front door. The school bus will drive by in a few minutes.
The first month after the terrible thing happened, I used to stand out in the driveway and wait until the bus went by. The first week, the driver would slow down and give me a mournful wave. Pretty soon he forgot to slow down, but he still waved. Then, after a few weeks, he just drove past without slowing down or waving. Now I stay inside. I still unlock the door, and I wait for the handle to turn.
I wait until it is dark. I leave my chair only to refill the glass. By 10:30, Righty has shuffled off to sleep. Lefty has swept the last crumbs of the Lord Jesus off the chapel floor and he, too, gives up for the night.
The war is done for now. I lock the front door, climb the stairs, and close the door to Kayla’s